Ever since a Saturday Night Live skit several years ago featured actor Christopher Walken calling for "more cowbell" during the recording of Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper," this simple bovine accessory has become the percussion instrument du jour for pop music audiences. Indeed, Web sites such as "The Cowbell Project" (www.geekspeakweekly.com/cowbell) have cropped up to glorify its metallic clang. And just weeks ago, during a Pittsburgh Symphony performance of "The Nevill Feast" by contemporary composer Christopher Rouse, principal percussionist John Soroka got his own chance to rock the cowbell.
Are there many symphonic pieces that call for a cowbell?
In Mahler we use Swiss cowbells, which are much rounder and have specifically tuned pitches, to re-create the sound of a herd of cows in the Alps. If one has ever had the opportunity to be up high and listen to cows down in a valley, they will hear a mild cacophony of diverse pitches. Another place where you'll hear cowbell would be Bernstein's West Side Story.
Symphonic percussionists always seem to be sitting in the back, waiting for that one triangle "ding," but the Rouse piece was like a circus. Were you having fun?
Rouse writes excellent parts for percussion; virtually any piece is a challenge. "The Nevill Feast" incorporates a lot of jazz and rock elements. Rouse scored for a drum set and gave the percussion section a 32-bar break to solo! That's where the cowbell came in.
Historically, percussion instruments were outdoor instruments: hollowed-out logs, slabs of stone laid across a hollow pit. Gradually, people like Mozart and Bach moved those instruments into the hall, and throughout the years, other composers kept expanding the percussion section. New music is all about percussion, so consequently, there's been an explosion in its education, playing, the number of styles and sub-specialties. If you're a percussionist today, the difficulty is becoming proficient in so many things.
What is it about the cowbell that everyone loves?
It's the kind of instrument that anyone can pick up and play. Even if one isn't playing intricate rhythms but just keeping time, they can be a part of a group. We've all done this in elementary school, with our little woodblocks and small instruments that require only basic instruction. I also love the cowbell. At home I have a collection of like 50 or 60.
Have you played other kinds of music?
All art forms are like being at a buffet: We pick and choose and sample a variety of things. I have wide and varied tastes in music. There was a period when I was a rocker and people wouldn't have recognized me with my long hair, but most of my life I've earned a living as a symphonic musician. Ultimately, symphonic performance at this level is one of the most secure forms of employment for a musician. It's very difficult to get, but once you're there, you know you'll have a job next year.
What do you listen to at home?
I hardly ever listen to the symphonic repertoire at home. I'm a New Ager, a country-westerner and a jazz fan.
Who's playing percussion out there with whom you'd like to trade jobs for a day?
STOMP or The Blue Man Group. I'd love to dress in blue! Or maybe a Japanese taiko ensemble. Each of those groups is extremely structured, though they appear improvisational. What they are doing in terms of being accessible to an audience is something that orchestras are really striving for these days. We want people to know that there's no barrier between the house and the stage. Like the buffet, come and listen to a few concerts; you don't need an education about everything. You know what you enjoy, though maybe it takes a few visits to figure out which composers you want to hear again.
What are your favorite pieces to play?
For the audience, "The Rite of Spring" [by Stravinsky] has great percussion and timpani parts, and "The Planets" [by Holst.] We're doing both of these pieces next year. A personal favorite of mine is the second movement of Shostakovich's 10th Symphony. It's four minutes of fury! Years ago I had a long-distance commute for which I made a cassette tape that played that piece about every 25 minutes. No matter how late at night it was, I'd be awake!